Nicole Atkins Has A Story For You. Pull Up A Chair
When I first heard Nicole Atkins sing on her wonderful 2017 album Goodnight Rhonda Lee, I was sure I had heard her voice in other incarnations. I heard Roy Orbison in her; I heard Billy Holiday; I heard Patsy Cline. I also heard twang; I heard soul; I heard love and anguish; I heard longing and I heard resilience.
In reality, no one sings like Atkins. If you haven’t heard her albums, a good place to start would be 2014’s poppy Slow Phaser. It’s a critically-acclaimed hi-fi/country/pop hybrid. You can hear her diverse talents on “Girl You Look Amazing” – an Emotional Rescue for our times.
Goodnight Rhonda Lee is the fourth album from Atkins, and has a more mature sound than Slow Phaser. (She also has two well-received albums she recorded with bands in the mid-aughts.) The self-titled track from Goodnight Rhonda Lee is a testament to the power of self-reflection, and charges with the power of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.”
We caught up with Atkins on her recent tour, where she opened up about her music, it’s power over her, and what it’s like to be in Colorado.
Soundcheck: Your new album is one of my favorite releases of the year because it crosses over so many genres. It goes from twangy, to soulful and has elements of my favorite gospel records. I feel like I am being schooled by someone who’s lived through it all. I bet it’s been really helpful for people to listen to. Was this your ambition?
NIcole Atkins: My main ambition was to write songs and create a sound that helped me make sense of what was going on in my life at that time. What it felt like, sounded like, and what would it sound like to transcend these hard times. I needed to give myself some hope and purpose. And I wanted it to sound beautiful and tough.
It’s also impressive how it comes across as rough around the edges and also highly polished at the same time. Does this sound accurate to how you went about writing and recording it?
That kind of dynamic has been something I’ve always been attracted to in music that I like to listen. The polish comes from the melodies. Everything has its own unique part. The rawness comes from cutting it live in a room. You can hear the sound and energy of the people making this moment in a room together.
“I do sing in my sleep. I write a lot of my songs in dreams.”
You’ve been open about the personal trials you’ve experienced in the past. And wonderfully, the album maintains a very hopeful outlook on how things will turn out. How much of the album’s soulful sound reflects your recent soul-searching as a person and a songwriter?
All of it. Writing songs has always given me the realest perspective on how I really feel about things. I never truly know until I write it down and hear how those words hang in the melodies.
One of the interesting themes I find in your music is how your singing gives you an almost newfound clarity. First of all, do you really sing in your sleep? Along those lines, how much does singing these songs help your “path be lit up by the bridges that you’ve burned,” as you sing in “A Dream Without Pain”.
I do sing in my sleep. I write a lot of my songs in dreams. Luckily I remember almost all of my dreams. Almost better than I remember things that happen in waking life. Singing these songs is one of greatest joys I have in my life. It gives me hope and power. When I see others experiencing those same feelings through these songs, it’s an experience that’s indescribable. I’m blown away every time.
You have an extremely moving song on the album called “A Night of Serious Drinking”. I love how the keys at the opening set the tone, like, “You’re going to really have to listen to my story.” It has an almost pull-up-a-chair quality. You’ve been very open about your road to recovery. What went into that song? It’s an astonishing testament.
I wrote the music to that song the first day I set up my new office when I moved to Nashville. I knew there was a big story in those chords. On my desk I had Rene Dumaul’s book, “A Night Of Serious Drinking.” I kept singing the title to my melody over and over.
A week later, my good friend and collaborator, Jim Sclavunos, of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was over for a visit to work on new music. I showed him the song and after a few days of talking about everything from failed relationships to insecurity, to writer’s block, everything really, we came up with a song that was a history, an apology, an acknowledgement of all of those things. I wanna cry when I sing that song. Feels like a giant weight off my chest.
“Those songs you hear when you’re driving alone down a dark highway. That’s where my soul lives.”
When I listen to Goodnight Rhonda Lee, the album’s title track, I often find myself mixed with emotions. It’s very twangy and I find a lot of inspiration in that song. I hear a lot of closure, too. But it’s also very emotional. Who is Rhonda Lee, and why are you bidding her goodnight?
Rhonda Lee is my alias for destructive behavior. I wrote this song with a lot of empathy towards that part of my life. When I was spending a lot of time hungover, I did a lot of hating on myself. That kind of mindset does a lot of unneeded damage so I wanted to write some kindness into what was going down.
To me, your sound is quintessentially American. You offer so much hope while being unafraid to look to your past to move on. Who are some American (or Americana) artists who’ve shaped you, and who you look to for influence?
I think my biggest influences have always been 50s and 60s AM radio. Those “cruisin classics.” Jackie Wilson, Bobby Vee, Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, Cass Elliot. Those songs you hear when you’re driving alone down a dark highway. That’s where my soul lives.
“I needed to give myself some hope and purpose. And I wanted it to sound beautiful and tough.”
Ok, you get a call that you’ve got a Colorado tour date. We feel so grateful to live here and love hearing about how others think about us! What do you get stoked about?
I get stoked about playing shows all over the country! I get stoked about sunlight and big moonlight. I get stoked about travel, meeting people, that moment when a good melody comes into your head and fits together with some words.
When you roll into Colorado, what’s the perfect song to take in the scenery?
Kashmir from Led Zeppelin.
What is your fondest memory as a musician playing in Colorado?
Probably playing right before War Paint and then seeing Father John Misty play solo at the radio convention in Boulder. What an amazing day of music. That was the first time I met Jess and Holly from Lucius too and they’ve become wonderful friends.
And finally, is there a place or a thing you just can’t miss?
My best friend Eddie in Denver! He’s my Colorado must see!
And, may we add, so will Nicole’s show. She plays Lost Lake Lounge, Friday, December 15. It’s going to be a good one.